Review of “Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography” by John Sutherland


The most infamous thing George Orwell ever wrote was that the lower classes smell.

Except he didn’t exactly write that.

Well, he did, but it’s complicated.

Hard as it is to imagine, a playful biography of Orwell has been produced, and it captures the intricacies of Orwell’s most conflicted thoughts, like the one about class and odor. John Sutherland’s 2016 Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography is brief (a mere 220 pages), witty, and somehow, despite its brevity, the most intimate of the Orwell biographies.

For the Orwell scholar or committed enthusiast, there is no getting around the half-dozen or so big biographies. You have to read them, because they are in a way an extension of Orwell’s actual life history. Before Orwell died, he instructed his widow Sonia Brownell to forbid any biographies.

But of course biographies would be written, and the first authors to try, Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, had to work with very limited material. Sonia denied them access to Orwell’s papers and wouldn’t even allow them to quote from his copyrighted publications. Imagine. But Stransky and Williams labored on to publish their version of Orwell’s life, based largely on interviews and hearsay.

Their book was so defective in Sonia’s estimation that in 1974 she relented and commissioned an official biography, to be written by the political scientist Bernard Crick. Despite lacking a literary background (or much literary feeling for that matter), Crick focused his whole effort on answering the question whether Orwell succeeded in his career ambition to make political writing into an art. George Orwell: A Life (1980) would be primarily a textual analysis. Sonia was deeply displeased with Crick’s book even before it came out. It was dry. Taking Orwell’s publication record as a rigid outline, Crick hardly touched on the man himself. (I recall thinking the first time I read Crick that he would have done a strict behaviorist proud; in the preface he swears off any attempt to get inside Orwell’s mind, saying he would only be analyzing concrete, observable fact.)

And so correctives of the corrective biography followed. D.J. Taylor naturally took Orwell the man as his focal point in his award-winning 2003 Orwell: The Life. (That definite article was meant to say something.) Five hundred pages long, it is possibly the most comprehensive Orwell biography.

Gordon Bowker’s 2004 George Orwell is also excellent. Bowker turns up a trove of new primary source material, including KGB files showing the Soviets were targeting Orwell in Spain in 1937. Juicy stuff. If you’re looking to take in Orwell’s life in only one biography, I would recommend Taylor’s or Bowker’s. (They’re both great buys, too. I am not an Amazon influencer, but I simply can’t not point out how inexpensive the Kindle versions of these books are: $2.99 for Taylor, $5.99 for Bowker.)

There are a number of semi-biographic books about Orwell that I won’t discuss at length here. Most are take-downs or appreciations, and they all have something to recommend them no matter which “side” they take. Even the sharply canted Inside the Myth, published in 1984 to “deconstruct” Orwell’s allegedly fraudulent self-image as a liberal democrat, helps tell the larger story of how Orwell is constantly being argued about and fought over. Two outstanding, and more recent commentaries that draw substantially on Orwell’s biography without being biographies are Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks (2017) and The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey (2019). Christopher Hitchens’s 2003 Why Orwell Matters is possibly the best general-purpose critical interpretation if you want to delve straight into the political meaning of Orwell’s works.

[Ian McKellan Gandalf voice] Now where was I? Oh, yes . . .

John Sutherland’s charming and delightful contribution to the catalog of Orwell biographies is in many ways the most enjoyable. As I hinted above, Sutherland exudes a friendly intimacy with Orwell’s life that is not at all evident in the big biographies. And to be fair, this is no surprise. The earlier biographers were all trying to get Orwell “straight” for the record.

Sutherland has an angle.

He retells the history of Orwell’s life through the prism (though that’s hardly the right word) of “naso-pathology,” his playful term for the diagnostic power of smell. You can’t read Orwell without noting the predominance of odors in all of his books and many of his essays. Even if you’ve only read his most famous novel, 1984, you can probably recall the odor of “rag-mats and boiled cabbage” materializing in the first few pages. The foul stench of Victory Cigarettes and the “sickly, oily smell” of Victory Gin soon follow. What a lunch break Winston Smith had that day.

(Image: Amazon)

Sutherland guides the reader on a tour of virtually all the smells that suffuse and punctuate Orwell’s works. And for the record, he doesn’t let Orwell off easily for the is-it-or-isn’t-it odiferous put-down of the lower classes. Anyone who has read the “smell” passage in The Road to Wigan Pier has likely read it several times. Strictly speaking, what it says is, the English culture of class differences has conditioned the upper classes to believe uncritically that the lower classes smell. Period. Which makes it sound like Orwell is in the clear, right? He’s critiquing the system.

But smell is a brute ontological fact that Orwell cannot get around: it exists, and it means something. And despite taking pains to put his observation about class differences into delicate context, Orwell can’t hide his true sensibilities (or do I mean sensitivities?) on this matter. “The fifty occurrences of the word ‘smell’ in the text don’t quite support [the] apologetic explanation,” Sutherland writes. “Later, for example, Orwell asserts, ‘I do not blame the working man because he stinks, but stink he does.'” Case closed?

In case you’re thinking you don’t want to read such a narrow interpretation of Orwell, no matter how zesty it might be, fear not. Most of Sutherland’s detailed naso-pathology is compartmented in three short but dense appendices, about Orwell’s smoking habits and the “smell narratives” of A Clergyman’s Daughter and The Road to Wigan Pier.

Sutherland’s theme, noticeable as it is, can detract from a small but I believe novel contribution he makes to the genre of Orwell biography. Despite Orwell’s lack of specialized education and the totemic power he lends to common sense, Orwell was, Sutherland points out, a world-class brain picker, and he picked the brains of highly educated specialists. (“The proles are our only hope?” Maybe not.)

Right before Orwell invented immersion journalism by joining the ranks of the down and out and writing a book about it, he shot the breeze at length with a Cambridge anthropologist who was leading a new school of thought: “participant observation,” it was called. And if you’ve read Franz Boas you know it became the school of anthropology in the 20th century; going native became a scientific technique. Orwell’s method of “becoming the thing he wanted to understand” did not spring forth fully formed from his head. It was midwived in Cambridge.

One of the most plaintive messages of Orwell’s Nose is that Orwell did not at all appreciate what a great wife he had in Eileen O’Shaugnessy. The reader may count the ways Eileen served George, and they are many. Newly added to the usual list, though, is Sutherland’s observation that George must have derived his critical interest in boys’ literature and the formative power of young childhood from Eileen’s graduate work in early childhood education. (Which she abruptly abandoned to become George’s typist and housekeeper when they wed in 1936.) Orwell’s ideas about the authoritarian’s need to subjugate people in a permanent state of childhood came in good part from Eileen and her studies.

Finally we learn that the font of Orwell’s close analysis of language was his months-long collaboration at the BBC with deskmate William Empson. Empson was a celebrated poet and, in Sutherland’s judgment, “the cleverest literary critic of the century.” Well, that’s something. Although Orwell was not fond of Empson (turning him into the clever but unlikeable Ampleforth in 1984), he must have drawn on the relationship with him to inform his own understanding of how single words, small phrases, and rhythmic devices could charge the meaning of a sentence. Orwell’s laser-sharp discernment of the line between persuasion and propaganda must have been helped along by the thoughts of a cubicle-mate whose doctoral thesis at Cambridge just happened to be Seven Types of Ambiguity. The literary world would not have Newspeak without Orwell, but Orwell, that hero of common sense, would not have come up with it without the flouncy, erudite Empson.

Orwell’s Nose is highly accessible. Even if it does presume a certain familiarity with Orwell’s catalog, there’s no harm in going back in filling in any gaps in your reading as a way of keeping up with Sutherland. If you have time, read one of the big biographies first, but if you don’t, you will probably appreciate this jaunty, intimate portrait of Orwell’s life anyway.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s